In recent years, the IDF has uncovered and blown up several terrorist tunnels, but all of those have been built by Hamas. The destruction of these tunnels at the time did not provoke any significant retaliation from Hamas because the organization, as the sovereign in the strip, is responsible for any military escalation and is expected to pay the steepest price.
There is, however, a strong likelihood of escalation in the wake of the destruction of the tunnel on Monday, both because Islamic Jihad—which built the tunnel—does not bear the responsibility of the sovereign, and because it is a more radical organization whose reaction is harder to predict.
The intensity of the response by its spokespeople, and the fact it lost both a strategic assert and two of its top commanders in one fell swoop, would make it harder for Islamic Jihad to demonstrate restraint.
Hamas leader Ismail Hanieyh, who spoke at the funeral of the killed Islamic Jihad fighters, issued a threat of his own: "Our response for this massacre will be to continue efforts to restore national unity," he said, without offering any details as to whether this response would include fire.
Haniyeh did make one declaration more militant in nature, in a message to Islamic Jihad: "Blood will be answered with blood, and destruction will be answered with destruction. The enemy is dreaming if it thinks it can force new rules of confrontation. The resistance and the weapons of the resistance are our top priority. Our weapons are our honor."
Egyptian intelligence officials have been talking to relevant officials both in Israel and in the Gaza Strip is an effort to lower the flames and prevent further escalation. The Egyptians know that at this time, a violent conflict in the Gaza Strip could spell an end for the reconciliation agreement signed between Fatah and Hamas, which Cairo has put a lot of time and work in.
To that end, Egypt's ambassador to Ramallah will visit the Gaza Strip on Tuesday with the sole objective of calming down the situation. At the same time, Egyptian intelligence officials are also expected to visit the strip, though their visit was planned before the tunnel explosion and has to do with the Palestinian reconciliation effort.
It appears Israel has carefully chosen the timing for the tunnel's demolition—just two days before the Palestinian Authority is scheduled to get control over the Erez and Kerem Shalom border crossings from Hamas. This is an important step in the reconciliation process between the two sides, and would give Abbas significant control in the strip.
It's safe to assume Israel is counting on Hamas to put all of its weight behind stopping Islamic Jihad from dragging Gaza into another round of violence before that important step in the reconciliation process is completed. Supporting that is the very moderate statement released by Hamas on Monday, claiming the Israeli escalation was meant to sabotage reconciliation efforts and making no concrete threats.
Haniyeh also called Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Shalah to express solidarity, but in addition to the pleasantries, it is safe to assume Haniyeh also requested—or demanded—Shalah not to escalate the situation before Fatah gets civil control over the Gaza Strip. A round of hostilities now would only lead to an indefinite postponement of the reconciliation agreement, burden the civilian population in Gaza—which is already exhausted by the military blows—and force Hamas to once again carry the burden of civil control over the strip.
The bottom line, however, is the fact it's hard to predict the moves of a radical organization such as Islamic Jihad, while its patron sits in Tehran, those working to lower the flames sit in Cairo, and the sovereign in Gaza is following orders from the Egyptians. When this is the situation, and the different players each pull in a different direction, the solution could be somewhere in the middle. Meaning, Islamic Jihad might choose to respond, but in a way that does not cross Israel's red lines and won't lead to escalation. This way, all sides can say they've done their part and then move on with their lives.
Islamic Jihad's window of opportunity to respond is seemingly small, while the organization's fuse is short. But an organization taking its marching orders from Iran could, at the end of the day, catch everyone—Egypt, Hamas and Israel—by surprise.